with John Maunder
If you are feeling the cold this winter, you might be thankful that you were not around in England in 1565, when the Thames was frozen solid between Christmas Day and January 13 and Queen Elizabeth I enjoyed daily trips on the ice.
This comment by reporter Andy Bloxham writing in UK newspaper the Daily Telegraph on December 26, 2011, as well as the following extracts from the work of retired UK meteorologist Jim Rothwell, shows that at least in England there is really, to quote Ecclesiastes “...nothing new under the sun”.
Mr Rothwell, 80, has compiled The Central England Weather Series, which begins at 56BC in the era of Julius Caesar and is housed with Nottinghamshire County Council’s archives service. His sources, which number more than 50, range from county council and university archives to historical reference works, particularly those with pictures showing the weather in detail; to the writing of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, the 17th century diarists. He also used local newspapers to corroborate information and the library of De Bilt, in Holland, to get weather reports for the Middle Ages.
Using a wide variety of sources, Jim Rothwell has built what he believes to be the fullest study of weather across central England in existence. He has found striking examples of extreme weather going back hundreds of years.
For example, in 1357, after a dry early summer, then downpours throughout the autumn, winter saw starving wolves prowling through Sherwood Forest taking livestock and even threatening humans; the winter of 1458 saw a bridge destroyed over the river Trent because of floodwaters caused by melting ice which followed prolonged and heavy snowfall; and in 1635, severe blizzards led to very deep snow with drifts up to 6m deep in Lincolnshire.
However, Rothwell also found evidence of particularly mild winters. For example, in 1607, in the reign of James I, flowers were reported to be in bloom on Christmas Day; in 1249, witnesses claimed the winter was so mild that there were “birds singing like it was spring”. The summer of 1375 is also noteworthy, as evidence shows the warm, dry weather lasted well into October; the rainy summer of 1315, which was so wet on July 15 that it is thought to be the origin of the St Swithin’s Day belief that if it rains on that day, it will continue for 40 more; and 1258, a wet and cool summer, leading to the failure of the crops and an appalling winter famine which was one of the worst in English history, with 20,000 people starving to death in London alone, and reports of people driven to eat the bark off trees. Further, in 1635 in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, eight young men drowned in winter when skating on a Sunday in what was known locally as the Divine Tragedy, as it was thought their deaths were a punishment for skating on a holy day.
For most Londoners, holding fairs and roasting oxen on thick ice on the River Thames today is unimaginable. In centuries past, though, it could and was done whenever there was a particularly cold spell. The first recorded Frost Fair was held in 1564 and Londoners danced and practised archery on the ice.
On December 23rd 1683, the diarist John Evelyn describes “a greate frost”. By January 1st 1684, the ice being so thick that booths were set up on the Thames. A few days later, he crossed the river on foot and saw streets of booths selling all kinds of wares and a whole ox was even roasted on the ice.
During the winter of 1739-40 the frost began on Christmas Day and continued until February 17th and was known as the Great Frost. The last great Frost Fair held on the River Thames in 1813-14. The watermen, who usually earned a living by ferrying people across the river, replaced their lost earnings by charging people for entering the fair. The frost fairs came to an end when the flow of the river was increased by the demolition of the old London Bridge and the opening of the new London Bridge in 1831.